Peter Ireland – 6 September, 2015
Neither is it rocket science to segue from skulls and death to the artistic tradition of still life, one of the major subjects of Pardington's work over the past two years or so. Incredibly, this tradition is described on one of the labels as “defunct”… What's really defunct here is a firm grip on the facts of art history…If it were defunct it would probably take more than imagery at least 85% dependent on what artists were doing in Holland in the 17th century to make it live again. In this kind of scenario the resurrected Christ would have ended up not in heaven but at Madame Tussauds.
A Beautiful Hesitation
Curated by Aaron Lister
A survey of 30 years’ work, developed in association with AAG and CAG for subsequent touring to Auckland (February-June 2016) and Christchurch (July-October 2016)
22 August - 22 November 2015
Apparently, Pardington initially resisted the idea of such a show: “You suddenly feel like what you’re doing is somehow placing a boundary around yourself”(1) and so the initiating institutions have been at pains to avoid confining this exhibition within the conceptual boundary of a “mid-career survey” or even the hindsight of a “retrospective”. But when curators call in most of an artist’s series and sequence them chronologically, it’s hard to detach one’s response from the summing-up nature of the standard survey or the wrapping-up of the conventional retrospective. Artists may, naturally, resist what amount to acts of closure but they’re conflicted by the opportunity to have large bodies of work presented by the higher-profile public galleries and written about by the academic heavy-hitters. The parliamentary tradition of a nominated new Speaker of the House physically resisting being lead to the chair has become a comedy replicated by the publicly reluctant artist. Another hesitation with perhaps its own kind of ironic beauty….
The mid-career survey - which is what this show plainly is - is a relatively recent phenomenon, an increasing feature of the arts sector over the past forty years an optimist might call “professionalism” and a cynic “careerism”; the former for reasons of timely assessment for an artist demonstrating some achievement, the latter suggesting useful starch for stiffening an established but sometimes faltering career. It’s not unknown that in time such an exhibition can resemble a tombstone, a final efflorescence, rather like a fireworks display just before midnight. As they say, time will tell, in its relentless way, carelessly casting aside all contemporary claims.
Before about 1970, artists pretty much had to be dead before they merited such a show. The first significant survey for a living artist was 1972’s Colin McCahon / a survey exhibition at the then Auckland City Art Gallery, and in retrospect it marks a mid-point in the development of such gallery culture. Up to that time public institutions called the tune as to the assessment of an artist’s reputation, and, importantly, for largely cultural reasons. But from that time, with, firstly, the steady establishment of dealer galleries, and secondly, the more recent influence of the auction houses, artist reputations are not so much assessed as invented, and for reasons more commercial than cultural. This complex dynamic is very rarely admitted or discussed , because just about everyone in the art world - gallery administrators, curators, art historians, and critics, as well as obvious participants such as dealers and auctioneers - are complicit in the operation of this triple helix of money, reputation and promotion.
There are often some ethical issues involved in the interface between public and private galleries, but these too remain rarely admitted or discussed. A Beautiful Hesitation involves a hundred and one works: three-quarters of them having been sourced through the artist and her Auckland dealer. Of course, the accompanying labels make no mention of selling, but the subtext is not only “these works are available”, but they’ve become more available because of the extra provenance provided by this show.
Pardington’s exhibition is an unusual collaboration between three public galleries: Wellington’s City Gallery, the Auckland Art Gallery (2) and the Christchurch Art Gallery. With regard to the Auckland and Christchurch institutions it has to be said plainly that neither of them has been conspicuous over the past couple of decades in dealing with the medium of photography critically. There has been a succession of photography shows profiling individual photographers certainly, but assessing the medium’s rise, impact and what specifically it may have to offer has been supplanted by an impulse more promotional than critical, as if merely observing apples rising to the top of a water-filled barrel were more their business than testing the weight of the fruit, the purity of the water or the successful construction of the barrel.
Fiona Pardington is undoubtedly one of this country’s highest profiled photographers and possibly its most successful commercially both in New Zealand and internationally, enjoying opportunities through residencies, interest from collectors and support from curators and critics, and as such is clearly a worthy candidate for this mid-career survey and serious consideration as to her worth as an artist and her place in the culture.
A Beautiful Hesitation‘s hundred and one works spanning Pardington’s career to date are spread throughout the City Gallery’s three ground-floor galleries - although the West Gallery has been effectively made into two by temporary walling. The East Gallery features the earliest work, later work in the West, with the most recent in the Hancock Gallery, which flows openly on from the reception area. The walls there, painted a lustrous matt black, host the photographer’s recent large signature still lives. It’s a good-looking show, evenly-paced, intelligently sequenced and adequately labelled, clearly constructed to inform gallery patrons about the artist’s interests and approach, as any mid-career survey ideally should.
Any sort of survey show can have its risks. There are some artists whose work should never been seen in bulk, because the undoubtedly admirable qualities individual works may possess can be overwhelmed by a posse of stylistic quirks and formulaic responses that large collections of works can make uncomfortably visible. One could cite, say, Doris Lusk, Bill Sutton, Dick Frizzell and even the highly-esteemed Ralph Hotere as examples in this respect. Sometimes curatorial concentration on a defined period or theme offers a more judicious underpinning of an artist’s reputation than the survey or retrospective. Tina Barton’s 1991 The Cubist Years show at the then Auckland City Art Gallery of Louise Henderson’s work predominantly in the 1950s is a good example. As well, a survey show can suddenly clarify nagging doubts about an artist’s general approach, and begin to settle questions about the depth of the philosophic and conceptual claims made for their work.
Throughout her thirty-year career, Pardington’s commentators have fostered around her work a climate of edginess - both sexy and spiritual (the combination itself exciting a mild frisson of shock) - and for most of the time the early appellation of “transgressive” has haunted her production like a pressure of darkness falling. (There’s a spectacular instance in A Beautiful Hesitation with a large image of an almost-naked woman reproduced on the gallery floor; but, more of that later.) Very much a hotly-quoted notion in the ‘80s, transgression - along with voyeurism and “the body” - are now pretty much just flotsam (3) cast up on the beach of art history. The photographer’s reputation very early on became associated with subject-matter exploring the boundaries of sex, death, desire and notions of the spiritual that tended to make your average Pakeha uneasy if not actually embarrassed. As Star Trek generally had it, going “boldly where no man has gone before.”
These are all sensitive issues in our society, still. One need go no further than suggesting programmes of teaching about them in primary schools to imagine the consequent torrent of shocked and defensive fuss. A Beautiful Hesitation offers an opportunity to examine more exactly the relationship of Pardington’s work to these issues. Hindsight might suggest a confusion around this exploring of boundaries, a confusion between identifying them and crossing them. It’s been assumed that the photographer’s boldness has meant a crossing, but the evidence here is they’ve been merely identified, so that the proclaimed transgression is a more an expression of intention than a completed act. The hesitation that Partington ascribes to photography’s nature (4) would seem rather cruelly applying more to her own practice. Flirting may have its attractions but it’s seldom true love.
The survey offers a number of examples. (Curiously, though, there is no work included in this show from the very early series first bringing Pardington’s work to attention - those images surrounded by seemingly random texts attached to the matts, or even the frame, which very much mirrored the current vogue for the language and practices of post-structuralism. While it undoubtedly offered lasting insights it was also a popular bandwagon off which its enthusiasts have since jumped with all the speed they first jumped on. “Text” went hand in hand with “the body” as topical focus, and it’s hard to avoid using the word fashion here in its basest sense. One of the show’s labels rather coyly skirts this issue: “While Pardington has now largely left behind the body as her primary subject, forces of eroticism and desire continue to permeate her subjects.”)
Sexually-dominant images, inspired by visceral experience rather than illustrating an academic concept, have always been a difficult overt subject for art (5), often more actually descriptive of contemporary social attitudes than expressions of personal experience, and very few artists can resist using the subject as an opportunity to shock, thus reinforcing an image of artistic fearlessness and boundary-crossing. The trap is, that a couple of decades later, such images can so easily resemble mildly risque greeting cards (6). The exhibition’s labels position the artist as a pioneer - if somewhat wayward - in this line of subject matter. For instance: “In the mid-1980s Fiona Pardington was seen as a feminist. Her work eroticised the male body, reversing the connection of women being represented by and for men. But, in playing with themes of love, violence and masochism across vulnerable bodies, it also posed problems for feminism. Pardington has politicised and problematised the erotic ever since.”
These four sentences raise problems of their own (7). Firstly, “being seen as a feminist” suggests the artist was cannily above all that business of women wanting some equality - perhaps playing with feminism in the same way as “love, violence and masochism” were being played with? But sentence three reveals the first statement as a straw man argument, because the artist’s practice “posed problems for feminism”, but, as with so much of the labelling in this show, nothing is offered as to the substance of these alleged problems. It’s like being at a Mormon church service: full particpation is predicated on an awful lot of unstated prior belief.
Secondly, can’t a case be made that an artist such as Jan Nigro was eroticising the male body at least two decades before Pardington came on the scene? And doing it long before it was safely fashionable? Besides, from the hindsight of thirty years Pardington’s eroticising looks pretty tame now, teasingly adventurous, but penetrating the jungle only a metre in from a clipped front lawn.
Thirdly, to claim that this artist “has politicised and problematised the erotic ever since” when there are no conspicuous instances of it throughout the rest of the show (apart from, perhaps, the already-mentioned floor-work) is itself problematic. If it’s such a big deal, why isn’t it represented? Indeed, could it be represented? Even a sketchy assessment of Pardington’s oeuvre tends to suggest that such concerns did not survive much beyond the early ‘90s. Unless it takes an art history degree to associate a candle with the phallic in one of the recent still lives.
Fourthly, it might be expected of a high-profile public gallery staffed with demonstrably intelligent curators that visitors be spared the epidemic of current jargon characterising the labelling. Jargon is always a substitute for original thought, and if words such as eroticising, politicising and problematising mean anything much, it’s here a desire to sound up with the play. If the hazy notions surrounding these words have anything pertinent to do with the artist’s work it’s the writer’s obligation to formulate specific, comprehensible references, not use the occasion to exhibit anyone’s personal insecurities about where they might sit within the curatorial profession. It’s a public gallery, not a confessional.
In the East Gallery there’s a wall almost bisecting the space, with one end leaving about two metres to allow egress to the inner part. On the floor at the gap and at an angle, is an image from the artist’s One night of love series, very hard to step around (gallery-goers try) and impossible to step over. So it must be stepped on. The series label states: “In the 1990s, refusing to photograph the female nude [what principle is being assumed here?], she instead re-presented found images. One night of love re-purposed salvaged nudes made for soft-pornographic magazines like Mayfair.” (8) The image concerned, Gigi, 1997, depicts a sultry young woman whose body is facing down - but with her head turned to look back provocatively - wearing only semi-transparent briefs edged with lace. All boxes ticked.
What isn’t ticked, though, is the moral intention of this placement on the floor and its implications for exhibition visitors. In effectively being made to step on the image do we thereby become complicit in some sort of degradation of the female sex? Or made conspiritors in a dated notion of transgression? “Gigi,” whoever she was and whatever we might think of her chosen profession, was still a human being and deserving of a degree of respect this cheap sensationalist gag denies her. Besides, this setting up of what amounts to morally compromising co-ercion for visitors signals a transaction where making the point is far worse than the point being made. Would the City Gallery bless a similar floor installation of, say, a kowhaiwhai pattern so as to turn us all into confessing racists? Or better still, would the show’s curator, the co-curator of the recent Jono Rotman exhibition of large portraits of gang members, risk placing one of those on the floor, even if many gallery visitors would have no problem walking over them? The hapless “Gigi” is the unwitting symbol of a very low point in public gallery exhibition culture. (9)
This sensationalist flavour in much of Pardington’s work, while bound to attract attention at the time, begins to pall in a survey such as this. The menu may offer salmon but it’s mince on the plate. There’s a telling instance in the label accompanying the Medical Suite of 1994, a body of work also about the artist selecting, re-photographing and re-presenting found images: “Pardington was also drawn to medical photography, where the body is often fetishised as a site of disease and deformity.” Fetishised by whom? Medical photographers? Hello?
Regarding this series the artist is quoted on one of the labels: “I don’t think it’s a morbid interest. You get interested in working in particular areas. The shock and distasteful features fall away and you’re able to draw out of it profound and meaningful situations.” Again, the viewer is left, probably bemused, to wonder what these “profound and meaningful situations” might be. (10)
Pardington’s parallel relationship with the apparent zietgeist continued in the later 1990s and into the 21st century with focus on what might be termed Maori subjects. David Eggleton has written that the award-winning Taniwha soap image “signalled an increasing interest in her own Maori heritage” (11), as it did for so many Pakeha New Zealanders who discovered iwi affiliations at that time, not uncoincidentally with changing perceptions of “being Maori” as a result of a complex set of historical circumstances, not the least of which was the work of the Waitangi Tribunal. The West Gallery features suites of ornithological subjects and a 7-part set of the well-known Hei Tiki series of 2001 (12) It also hosts merely three related images from the much-publicised series depicting plaster casts of the heads of Polynesian and Melanesian subjects by European explorers when phrenology was of interest to science in the later 18th and earlier 19th century (13). There’s an assumption of significance in the recording of these casts, now spread all around the globe in museum collections - “issues” of colonisation and control one supposes - but as with much on the Pardington menu a lot is suggested; however on reflection we seem back at the Mormon church service.
Once the overtly physical phase of the ‘80s and ‘90s had passed, the work appeared to take a more covertly mysterious, even spiritual direction, perhaps not uncoincidentally with the newer Maori-related subject matter. Although, nothing less than death as a subject seemed able to contain the photographer’s ambition. However much the medium of photography can be associated with various kinds of death conceptually (that was a bit of a fad in the ‘90s too) the actual subject is all-too-prey to the long but attractive talons of romanticism. (“Romanticising” has yet to appear in the critical lexicon surrounding Pardington’s work - but how could it compete with the shock-value and phony gravitas of the eroticisings, politicisings and problematisings?) A movement of emotional extremes, romanticism entailed - as Goya pointed out - an imagination abandoned by reason, producing the kind of monsters evident in A Beautiful Hesitation: fuzzy thinking, cliches triumphant, claims with little discernable substance, and an over-arching impression of mystery and significance failing to survive much scrutiny.
It’s hardly rocket science to equate skulls with death, and artists from Shakespeare to Damien Hirst have been monkeying around with these brainless objects for centuries. True to form, one of Pardington’s skulls is that of the Marquis de Sade, and his observation that it’s “necessary to call upon hell to arouse interest” is surely apposite here. Hell may be the ostensible subject but arousing interest is surely the object.
Neither is it rocket science to segue from skulls and death to the artistic tradition of still life, one of the major subjects of Pardington’s work over the past two years or so. Incredibly, this tradition is described on one of the labels as “defunct”. Well, try telling that to, say, J-B-S Chardin, Charles Marville, W M Harnett, Paul Cezanne, Georges Braque, Giorgio Morandi, Marian Drew, Jude Rae and Ann Verdcourt, to name just a few of the beads on a continuous string reaching back three centuries to the Dutch tradition which Pardington’s imagery quotes so generously. What’s really defunct here is a firm grip on the facts of art history. But making such a claim is just another straw man argument, erected in order to be knocked down, because the artist is said to make this allegedly defunct tradition “live again, investing it with a new animism” (14). If it were defunct it would probably take more than imagery at least 85% dependent on what artists were doing in Holland in the 17th century to make it live again. In this kind of scenario the resurrected Christ would have ended up not in heaven but at Madame Tussauds.
This curatorial strategy seems alarmingly hand-in-hand less with cultural interests than with commercial ones. It’s still a struggle to sell photography as art, and we live in an era where art world movers and shakers have come up with a category called “art photography”, which means, crudely, work they can swallow, imagery they can accommodate within the art history they got taught at school. One of the most astonishing aspects of A Beautiful Hesitation - and another which returns to bite this cute title in the nether regions - is a description of a technical approach: “She recently began printing photographs on gesso grounds, which allows images to be presented unglazed, like paintings, complicating the references her photographs make to the painting tradition and to the crossing of real and imagined worlds.” Whether this complicating is specific - or even brave - enough to raise questions around not merely referencing the tradition of painting but that of photography and respecting it must be left for history to decide, not the market.
“Seduction” has titillating associations offering certain attractions, but on its darker side there’s the entrapment of manipulation. On the one hand in this show there’s the flirtatious artist statement relating to the recent still lives: “Every object has a particular meaning for me, a certain feeling, an emotion, a history, often a history I can sense, even though I can’t tell you its story.” On the other hand there’s the more determined “making the viewer complicit” in relation to poor “Gigi” on the floor. What A Beautiful Hesitation reveals more than anything is an artistic approach with a canny instinct for settling on subjects that as issues command attention for a decade or so, but which, collectively, in retrospect can seem more strategic than perceptive.
(1) The Wellingtonian, Prolific artist’s work on show by Briar Babbington, August 20 2015, p.13
(2) It appears that A Beautiful Hesitation will be significantly altered as to its content for the Auckland showing.
(3) Maybe jetsam is more apposite here, since it describes stuff tossed overboard to lighten the load.
(4) A Beautiful Hesitation is Pardington’s description of the nature of photography from a practitioner’s point of view.
(5) Artists such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Boucher, Bocklin and von Stuck were very good at the covert kind.
(6) It’s not too hard to now imagine a card featuring 1986’s Prize of Lillies with the inside message reading “Say it with flowers. Yeah, right.”
(7) “Problematised” in the way, perhaps, that one of Dali’s young virgins was “auto-sodomised by her own chastity.”
(8) Throughout the exhibition there is ample evidence of things not quite being thought through, as if striking a pose would be enough to clinch the argument. For example, the extended label for One night of love includes the following: “Pardington had already pushed boundaries around gender, sexuality and photography - ‘reversing the gaze’ by treating the male body as a subject of her desire. Now, she selected, re-photographed and re-presented these found female nudes made to appeal to base male desires.” So, apparently, female desire is somehow noble and male desire is clearly “base”. As American detectives used to say in TV dramas “What gives?”
(9) The extended label for One night of love offers the following: “These photographs have been presented in various ways: as small prints, which set up an intimate viewing experience; often hung salon-style, suggesting a smoking den [WTF?]; as murals and billboards, which allow the subject to tower over the viewer; and even on the floor, where the subjects must be walked over. In each case, Pardington makes the viewer complicit in the invitations to pleasure that these images once offered.” Make of that what you will.
(10) A further instance of puzzlement is offered by a quote from the artist on a label accompanying the One night of love series: “They [the images] might just be a box of test sheets for some wank mag for some. But to me they are exquisite little fictions.” Again, this rather flirtatious statement fails to join many dots in relation to the series or offer any clues as to what we might make of it.
(11) David Eggleton, Into the Light: a history of New Zealand photography, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2006, p.161.
(12) It’s interesting to compare these works with a series of photographs by Mark Adams made of taonga in the Akaroa Museum, accompanying Areta Wilkinson’s current jewellery show at the Dowse. Both sets have a similar pictorialist mystery, but issues of ethnicity and fame “problematise” perception of their relative merits.
(13) This series is called The Pressure of Sunlight Falling. This writer went to New Plymouth to see the show at the initiating gallery, the Govett-Brewster. During the almost 3 hours spent in the gallery, any staff passing through were stopped and asked to explain this title. Even to their own surprise none of them could.
(14) This show is replete with language the imprecision of which is maddening but possibly indicative of a need to reinforce the mystery supposed to be infusing the imagery. “Animism”? Animation would make more sense if talking about a revived tradition, but then, given the New Agey semi-consciousness suffusing this show, “Animism” was probably carefully chosen. Again, the still lives are said to “always carry a sense of the presence of the artist who made them” - what work of any artist doesn’t do this? Another label, refers to “powerful Ngai Tahu women in a state of lucid dreaming”. Dreams can be frighteningly vivid, but any concept of lucidity is logically foreign to their essential nature one would’ve thought. There’s room for poetry but none for nonsense.